Helpdesk Report: K4D - The role of UN humanitarian forums involving conflict parties in conflict situations
University of Manchester
26 April 2019
This query looks at the role of regular UN humanitarian forums that involve conflict parties in conflict situations to discuss humanitarian issues of concern. It focuses on forums that are held outside of any political processes or peace talks. It provides examples and lessons from those forums.
This paper finds only six examples of forums that meet two or more of the criteria, although several of these are informal and/or linked to a political process. Forums such as the Technical Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (TCHA) in Sudan (1998-2000) and the Nuba Mountains Programme Advancing Conflict Transformation (NMPACT) in Sudan (2002-2007) have allowed humanitarian issues to be discussed in a co-ordinated way among United Nations (UN) organisations and/or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and parties to the conflict. This can lead to better technical co-ordination, a distribution of aid according to humanitarian principles rather than strategic negotiations, and a greater acceptance of humanitarian principles among the warring parties. However, the success of such forums is highly context-specific and depends upon their format, personnel and tactics, as well as the broader political context and the tactics and capabilities of the conflict parties. The forums risk legitimising the conflict parties and allowing aid to be instrumentalised.
Some key challenges shape the space humanitarian actors have for engaging in regular forums with conflict parties. Firstly, so-called ‘complex emergencies’ after the Cold War have changed the context for humanitarian action, and brought distinct challenges to implementing humanitarian principles and maintaining humanitarian space. Wars involving state and non-state actors make it difficult for humanitarians to gain access and threaten humanitarian principles.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) states that humanitarian organisations may offer help to populations in need provided consent is given. However, agreeing access with non-state groups may confer legitimacy on those groups. The process of negotiating access may also lead to aid becoming instrumentalised in military or political strategies.
Secondly, the UN introduced a ‘policy of integration’ in 1997, whereby UN peacekeeping, security and humanitarian agencies are linked together. Many aid agencies and scholars feel that the UN’s policy of integration has contributed to a squeezing of ‘humanitarian space’. Evidence from interviews points to a perception that aid is linked with UN political goals in contexts such as Somalia and Afghanistan, and a subsequent reduction in the efficacy of aid delivery (Keogh & Ruijters, 2012; Steets, Reichhold, & Sagmeister, 2012). Third, on a more technical level, the cluster system introduced in 2005, was implemented to improve co-ordination between NGOs.
However, it can lead to similar problems as ‘integration’, especially where peacekeeping or other political issues are being led by a cluster member (Metcalfe, Giffen, & Elhawary, 2011, p. 27).
Fourth, anti-terrorism legislation has also brought restrictions on NGO interactions with terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Al-Shabaab. As the territory governed by these organisations has some of the highest levels of humanitarian need, the lack of access to it has impeded humanitarian work considerably.
Humanitarian organisations and the UN have tried various methods to overcome these problems, including co-ordination mechanisms and the formulation of joint operating principles.
Regular forums offer a way to engage both sides during a conflict. They stand in contrast to the more ad-hoc negotiation of access used by many humanitarian organisations on the ground.
They can be used to help implement ‘joint operating principles’ or ‘ground rules’ uniformly across a conflict-affected state. They can also help to negotiate humanitarian access in situations where conflict is preventing it. It has been argued that these high-level forums are an effective way to ensure that humanitarian principles are adhered to by all parties in a war, and ensure a separate ‘humanitarian space’.
This report is divided into two sections:
The first section of the report lists examples of forums, discussing the context in which they worked, their format, and their successes and failures.
The second section discusses some general lessons regarding the forums, including from cases which only partly meet the criteria, or where a forum is absent.
This paper finds only one example of a forum that entirely meet the specificities of this query, however five additional examples of forums may offer transferable lessons and are therefore included below. There is little direct discussion of UN-led forums in the literature. Most of the literature focused on negotiating humanitarian space and disseminating humanitarian principles includes high-level negotiation as only one facet. For reasons of sensitivity, some forums have generated little published research. However, conclusions can be drawn from the strengths and weaknesses identified in cases where such forums are not used: informal forums negotiations not including parties to a conflict, those linking humanitarian issues to political goals, and more locally based policies. Much of the literature discusses the difficulties of negotiating access with conflict parties through the UN. The evidence found does not address gender issues.